Jim Busby: Product Testing to the Podium
Jim Busby: Product Testing to the Podium
Barbara was furious. She hated motor racing and never understood what all the fuss was about. Something about the second World War seemed to have given every man in California an all-consuming fascination with machines. They ought to have been spending their GI money on their families. But instead, they threw it away on cars and motorbikes. By day, they tinkered in garages. By night, they roared up and down the streets of Pasadena, drag racing. It was a loud, reckless business, and she was determined to keep it as far away as possible from her young, impressionable son.
A project which, on New Years Day 1948, spectacularly failed.
They had gone to the 34th Annual Rose Bowl for the parade. She enjoyed the floats. There was a dinosaur made of white chrysanthemums and a rocketship of red roses. A multi-colored San Francisco cable car won the contest. The marching bands played, and the glamorous Queen of the Roses waved from her perch. It was a beautiful, cloudless day.
The game itself was a wash. Michigan clobbered USC. It was 21 to nothing at the half, and the crowd was buzzing with anticipation for the show. In the 107 total years of Rose Bowl games, 1948 was the only year that featured a motor race at halftime. Just her luck. As dozens of short-bodied sports cars lapped the stadium, again and again, the crowd erupted. But not Barbara Busby, who stood quietly and watched in horror as Jim, her sweet four-year-old, fell madly in love.
A Real Job
Jim Busby never did anything else. From that day in the stadium on, his obsession only grew. It was worse than his mother ever could have feared. As a teen, he cut school to work at a local machine shop, learning to lathe, mill, and swap out parts to build hot rods. By night, he lied about his age to compete in drag races. He was hooked. And behind the wheel, he was fearless.
Jim spent the next few decades saying yes to every opportunity that put him behind the wheel or under the hood of a race car. He built Lola Car engines for Charlie Hayes and raced Porsches with Peter Gregg. Over time, he collected a wealth of knowledge about sports cars and built himself a reputation as a racer who drove to win — even if it meant pushing his co-driver off the track to get to the top spot on the podium.
“Every time I won a race, Peter personally had to write me a $5,000 bonus check. I often had to call him on Monday morning after knocking him off the road the day before to ensure I got my bonus. He would grumble and curse, and I’d say: did you hire me to place second or to win? And he’d say: I hired you to win, but you don't have to race me so hard. You're going to get a reputation. I said: good.”
During this time, Jim grew his reputation and his trophy case. But no number of headlines or class wins ever got his mother to come to a race. Or to stop asking him, “Jim, when are you going to get a real job?”
Driver, Turned Engineer
His young punk years of cutting school, running his boss off the road, and laughing off questions at the dinner table were good preparation for Jim’s next big risk — racing the 1982 24 Hours of Le Mans with BFGoodrich® Tires. He almost backed out when he heard about their plan to race on street tires.
“I told Jo Hoppen: I’m a little nuts, but I’m not suicidal.”
The confidence and smarts on the BFGoodrich engineering team are what got him to ultimately get on the plane to France, where the team ended up spending most of their pre-race track time rebuilding an engine. When the green flag dropped, Jim had little sense of how the race was going to go.
Twenty-two hours went by without issue. They pitted every ten laps or so, much less frequently than competitors, saving tons of time. With two hours to go, they blew a head gasket and had to start pitting more often to apply ice packs to the cylinder head. But their lead held, and they finished first in class, contributing to a full ‘82 Le Mans sweep for Porsche — a headline in its own right. And they did it on street tires. Street tires that, no question, won the day.
“We won our class with zero flats. Those tires lasted the entire 24 hours. About 12 hours in, they swapped out one tire just to see what the wear was. It didn’t have anything wrong with it.”
Unexpected is an understatement. What was essentially an engineering team’s experiment had just won its class in the biggest road racing event of the year. And the experimentation was far from over. When BFGoodrich Tires called Jim up again, he had only one question: “What’s next?”
BFGoodrich Tires Performance Team lead Gary Pace replied: “We want to see if we can make a race tire out of a street tire, instead of the other way around. We have a plan for a treaded tire that wears down to a slick. But it’s just a plan. It needs proving. What do you say, Jim? Want to engineer a tire with us?”
From the Tires, Up
They sent Jim to Japan to speak with Mazda. He was happy about the size-to-power ratio of their engines, but he wasn’t excited about their bodywork. He wanted to minimize drag. His history building Lola engines came back to him. He gave Lola Cars a visit in England next. Excited about the relationship with BFGoodrich Tires, they gave the team their next wild idea.
“They told me: since we've got a tire manufacturer doing this, it's the perfect opportunity for us to design the car around the tire. Instead of you hanging tires on our car, we want to hang our car on your tires.”
The team’s collective jaw dropped. This was huge. They immediately got to work, deciding that they would test for a year, getting the new tires — and then, the new car design — right and ready for the 1984 season. Every design choice made around the tire had its ripple effect on other parts of the final car, the Lola T616. Each ripple was a new path setting Jim and his team farther apart from the crowd.
“This was a whole new way of racing. Because we flipped the design process, we were able to make a car that you could not otherwise make. The tires were a revolution in and of themselves. And the bodywork that followed it was equally unexpected, unanticipated, and wildly different than everybody else’s.”
Because the tire design began as a street-construction base, the new tires were smaller than the typical race tire. Smaller tires led to a smaller nose. The Lola team was able to section the body, getting the total frontal area under 12 inches across. Where larger wheels usually would have been, the team added flaps in the bodywork to provide downforce when needed. Finally, with the body so custom-built to sit tight on the tires, the car’s aerodynamic drag fell to practically nothing.
The smaller tires and wheels also offered weight reduction. Specifically, unsprung weight reduction. That affected the suspension, allowing the team to use a design that reduced steering reaction when the wheel moved. Shock absorbers were in turn affected — another ripple effect leading back to the central tire choice.
The new concept made its debut in Monza, Italy — a difficult, high-speed track. Up against Ford V8s and bigger Lolas, “our little peashooter was so reliable and had so little wind resistance, it easily won its class and even after 1000 kilometers of racing, was in perfect condition to race again.” Weeks later, Jim and his team finished first and third in their class at Le Mans. All season long, they didn’t leave the podium.
“We didn't go to race a car. We went to race a tire. And that's why we won.”
A Lasting Legacy
Jim went on to race, design, and make headlines with BFGoodrich for 11 years. Starting in 1985, they made history with Porsche, racing two customized Porsche 962s — the most popular car in the IMSA GTP series at the time. In ‘85, the cars finished 1st and 2nd at the IMSA Riverside 600 Kilometers race. The cars continued to dominate throughout the 80s, culminating in the team’s crowning achievement in 1989 at the Daytona 24 Hours, when the #67 car took the overall win.
It was a wildly different kind of relationship than Jim had ever enjoyed with a racing partner. Engineers, not marketers, ran the program. They weren’t afraid to fail, and they had a higher calling than simply collecting trophies. They were out to make tire history. And week after week, race after race, podium after podium, they did.
“I probably spent 40 hours a week talking to the engineering team, making dozens of tire prototypes a season. And they listened! Then, they would come up with a tire that we thought was the best tire for that particular race.
This was a lot of extra work, but it paid off. And now, it’s standard practice. Look at other brands and racing circuits — they’re paying attention to week-to-week tire performance decades after we started to. Racing today, as it pertains to tires, was completely changed by BFGoodrich.”
Jim estimates that BFGoodrich made close to 500 unique tire prototypes for his race cars as they iterated their way to success together. The engineering lessons amassed during this period live on in every street and racing tire the company makes to this day.
One Final Trophy
Through the end of her life, Barbara hated racing. She reluctantly came to just one race during Jim’s career, and she left in anger before she could even see him win it. She never brought herself to acknowledge his success in person, but after her passing, the family discovered a box. It had been tucked away in a closet, filled to the brim with videotapes, magazines, and newspaper clippings detailing every high-speed twist and turn of Jim’s racing career, carefully preserved in secret pride.
Good job, Jim.
Select photography courtesy of Richard Chenet